opting in…by co-opting the original research & writings of other feminists

well, this book could not possibly have been more disappointing. the subtitle is “having a child without losing yourself,” & based on that & the back cover blurb, i guess i was expecting a book about balancing motherhood with one’s feminist principles, & trying to create a society that values the contributions of mothers as people as well. amy richards is one of the co-authors of manifesta, a popular third-wave feminist book that i found aggravatingly simplistic, elementary, & watered down. i had hoped that she would get a little more specific in writing about motherhood. i had hoped that she might have learned from some of the critiques of manifesta & succeed in writing a book that speaks to more than just the experiences of her specific cohort: white heterosexually partnered women in their early 30s living in new york city & enjoying the relative financial privileges of making a living in a creative industry. alas, if this does not describe you, you are unlikely to get much out of opting in.

the book was written in response to a piece in the “new york times magazine,” called “the opt-out revolution”. it was a very widely-debated piece about the phenomenon of a certain type of mother (well-educated, reasonably class-privileged) choosing to eschew career for a life of stay-at-home motherhood. when i say it was “widely-debated,” i mean that a lot of people threw around a lot of opinions about it without having actually read the article. i read it. i thought it was very well-written & interesting, & far from being the first cannon fire in the new round of early oughts mommy wars or a screed about women shortchanging their kids by going back to work, or wasting their promise wiping noses all day, it seemed to examine the flawed underpinnings of the mommy wars & conclude that success & satisfaction can be defined by the individual.

add richards to the pile of folks who did not seem to actually read the article. she seems to have skimmed it with a lot of pre-conceived notions about its content & then taken umbrage with the conclusions she assumes the author was making. so, from the start, the book is based on a faulty premise. adding to the shaky foundation is richards’ conception of herself as a voice for the modern-day feminist–& she is a classic third-wave “i choose my choice/everything i do is a woman’s movement” feminist. she had a baby, so suddenly being a mom is an area of feminist inquiry. i do think that being a mom can be an area of feminist inquiry–it just bothers me when people don’t realize that until they themselves are moms. especially when they have made a career out of watering feminism down to become basically just an amusing phase for single freewheeling college girls.

even if the book had been less about how to “be a mother without losing yourself” & more a memoir about richards’ own experience balancing motherhood & feminist activism (such as her work is activism–does it still count as activism when it’s basically your career?), it would have been better than what we actually got. the book is really just an incredibly boring, tedious rehash of the research on achieving work-life balance. allow me to say that the phrase “work-life balance” is essentially code for “reasonably class-privileged women feel guilty about everything & manifest that guilt as endless judgments against one another & complaining about how difficult it is to be true to yourself in between the latest board meeting & little madison’s ballet recital”. i’ve pretty much never heard a poor working mom get all fluttery about work-life balance. it speaks to the privileged bubble that richards lives in that this is where she took her book.

she essentially wrote nothing but an annotated bibliography. the text is a tapestry woven of other writers’ research & ideas, & at no point does richards offer anything new & original. she liberally employs barbara ehrenreich’s writing about the medicalization of childbirth & misogyny in medicine in the chapter on birth options. she synopsizes judith warner’s obnoxious perfect madness when she writes about parenting strategies. it’s as if she just camped out in the new york public library like a diligent undergraduate, read her way through a shelf on motherhood, & then regurgitated it all into a manuscript. & because she is a professional feminist, it got published. she includes only the most cursory acknowledgment that there are mothers in the world that are not white &/or class-privileged–clearly hoping to avoid falling into the trap she set for second-wave feminists in exorciating them for snubbing poor women & women of color. but her efforts here are almost painfully tokenizing, & of course, her conception of feminist history is inherently self-serving. richards herself has done rather a lot to help erase the legacy of women of color in second wave feminism by parroting back the viewpoint that they didn’t exist or were shunted to the sidelines & it’s up to the good white feminists of the third wave to welcome women of color into the movement.

richards also has an obnoxious habit of seeming to celebrate her own ignorance. again & again, she writes about how she didn’t realize how serious such & such an issue was until she got pregnant or became a mother. while i appreciate her attempts to not portray herself as an omniscient feminist overlord, some of the shit she never considered until it was directly affecting her is just embarrassing. i personally would be embarrassed to admit that i’ve been a full-time feminist for fifteen years but had never really thought before about the complications of finding good, affordable child care. i’ve written before about richards’ essay on undergoing a selective reduction when she found herself pregnant with triplets, & how she wrote about being completely unfamiliar with the concept of selective reduction until she needed one herself. really? REALLY? it’s like she’s admitting to fashioning a completely solipsistic activist career & everyone is applauding her for it!

a quote from the book that kind of sums things up: “i had read susan faludi’s backlash & considered myself well-versed in how the media systematically works to undermine women.” really? you read one of the most well-known feminist texts in the history of the english language, which is all about how the media works to undermine women, & now you’re “well-versed” in the subject? i love how she consumes the research & writing of other women & then spits it back out again, completely unadorned with her own original analysis, & claims that it’s knowledge she now possesses. if you want to read 250 pages of this kind of bargain basement “i read a book! now come to my class at the learning annex!” bullshit, this is the book for you. but if you, like me, prefer to spend your time reading books by people who can not just consume & repeat, but can also think, philosophize, & WRITE (seriously, richards is not a great writer–half the time, she employs overwrought sentence structure peppered with words that i don’t think mean what she thinks they mean, & the rest of the time, she falls into the jessica valenti camp of hyperbolizing everything until she’s not even coherent anymore), give this one a wide berth.

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